Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Problem with Thinking About Things

This is hard for me to admit, being a thinker from way way back, but I really have a problem with thinking about things. The problem develops when thinking becomes an end in itself, when "I think therefore I am" becomes my personal job description, when thinking becomes a substitute for doing, for taking action of any kind.

Now that phrase "taking action" can conjure up really active kinds of action in my imagination, like, say, applying for a job, or cleaning my whole house in one afternoon, going bunjee jumping, or at least going out for a 5 mile run (even if I haven't been a runner for ten years). This only adds to the problem of thinking about things, because I now have all sorts of reasons and excuses for not taking any actions at all, because I am imagining doing things that are next to impossible to accomplish (cleaning my whole house in one afternoon, so why bother to start?) or aren't necessarily appropriate for my current circumstances or that don't fit who I am--and thus are as ludicrous to consider. As if I were to decide that this morning I will stop wearing my own clothes and instead wear David's, which are built for someone about eleven inches taller and seventy-five pounds heavier than I am, and someone without (although David might want to argue this point) noteworthy breasts.

I could go into the whole topic of perfectionism here, and the need to take imperfect actions in order to take any actions at all. But let me sum up that topic in the catchy expression that an Episcopal priest I once worked with used to say: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

I wasn't sure I liked or agreed with that statement when I first heard it, twenty-something years ago, which is probably a pretty good indication that I have a decent case of perfectionism in my blood. I find it a handy saying to have in my back pocket these days, to pull out when I am hemming and hawing because maybe I won't be able to do something very well. (Fear of failure might be the grand way of naming this; fear of looking stupid or fear of just plain doing a shitty job and being horribly disappointed in myself are closer to the bone.)

So, back to the problem of thinking about things. Actually, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with thinking about things, as long as you have an inner alarm that sounds when you cross from wise thinking, pragmatic thinking, or especially from creative, idea-sparking kinds of thinking into obsessive worrying, fretting, and inability to decide just-what-to-do or how-to-start kinds of thinking.

It helps to have a thinking first aid kit around to help you out--I suppose each of us has to try own and gather our own best tools and techniques and potions and ointments to have on hand. (A whole collection of sayings like "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." might be part of your first aid kit; a practice that grounds you in the present moment--noticing what's going on in your body or in the air around you--might be part of it; visualizations, yoga stretches, cold showers, hot showers, flowers, chocolate. You get the idea. Somewhere in your first aid/tool kit you might want to put a note reminding you that seeking a lobotomy is not on your list. In fact, thinking about getting a lobotomy is one of my warning signs.)

Sometimes I just make myself drink a glass of water and go outdoors and walk around a little. Anything to change what's going on in my head!

The kind of problematic thinking about things that I had in mind when I started this post is the thinking  about doing things you want to do (like, for me, writing or painting or taking a walk) and letting the thinking about doing them be a substitute for the doing of them.

Considering options ad nauseam. Which do I want to do first? And how do I want to do it? Which direction do I want to walk and for how long? Do I want to write with pen on paper or with keyboard on computer or directly into my blog? Do I want to draw with pen, pencil, charcoal, watercolor crayon or . . .  or paint instead of draw? and indoors or out, from memory or direct observation? Too many options!

Such a beautiful, active mind resides in my head! And, wow--such a messed up, convoluted, stuck in familiar ruts of thinking sort of mind resides in there, too!

At times like this, there's just no substitute for doing something. Like just plain sitting down and writing this post. And now I think I'll go paint for a while. Indoors. Because it's too cold outside. Thank God that decision was made simpler.


Wife of Bath said...

I thought I was fairly well-recovered of my perfectionism until I read "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." I am still trying to wrap my head around that one because too often I don't anything I really want to do because I want so much to do it well. Perhaps I will tuck that quote in that little bible of mine....

Sukie Curtis said...

It does give you pause, doesn't it?! I can embrace it readily in areas I don't care so much about, like getting exercise! I often say quite happily and sincerely, "Well, a 15 minute walk is better than none at all."

I use that "doing it badly is better than not doing it at all" line of reasoning fairly often to nudge myself into action.

Anonymous said...


I've been meaning to leave you this post but haven't had time in the last week to do more than read what you're writing. But today I'm prompted by your blog to just take action. I want to let you know about a documentary film about women who are artists, writers, wives, mothers and many other things as well, called "Who Does She Think She Is." Pamela Tanner Boll is the film's producer, and it's available on Amazon with a "house party" kit. Knowing what a house party girl you are and all, I thought you might enjoy getting some of your women friends/colleagues together to watch and discuss the film and how it applies to your lives. So many similarities between you and the women featured in the film! And all this for only $29.95. A bargain!

How often do we find films about women who face the same struggles we do? In this age of "Sex and the City, they are practically non-existant.


Sukie Curtis said...

THanks, Meredith, That sounds like a wonderful documentary--and one right up my (and others') alley for sure.

I have two documentaries about artists that I have enjoyed, with the slight sadness that they are both of men.

So thanks for commenting and for the excellent recommendation.